Rachel Ferguson’s The Brontes Went to Woolworths is a rare gem of a novel with a flashy title: there was much commotion last summer as Bronte-mad readers struggled to acquire it after a mere
mention of the title in Carmen Callil’s essay on the founding of Virago books. Prices were inflated to $50-plus and desperate bloggers whimpered as they surfed book sites for an affordable copy. As in the stockmarket gone wild, somebody was on the phone checking used bookstores every five minutes. Somebody else got it for $20 at a hidden independent book site nobody ever heard of. The Virago-crazed were mailing it back and forth within their online book clubs. Some bibliophiles invest even in the worst economy - we have to assume that some of them only pretended they bought cheap and then generously shared their expensive copies.
Although this clever, charming novel seems slight on a first reading, a rereading - and
I can tell this will become an annual tradition - reveals it as a classic which can hold its own in modern literature. (You can read my original entry about it here.) Ferguson’s light, whimsical style meshes perfectly with the optimistic voice of the narrator, Deirdre Carne, who is vaguely reminiscent of Cassandra in I Capture the Castle. Deirdre’s enchanting sketches of the three Carne sisters’ conversations with and about imaginary friends - most of them celebs whom they read about in the papers - are interwoven with the governess Miss Martin’s daydreams and lonely letters to friends and relatives. Poor Miss Martin never knows whom they know and whom they pretend to know, and much damage is done both by the Carnes' flights of fancy in front of Miss Martin and by her plodding reactions. The Carnes are funny and sweet, but also snobbish about class, and though Deirdre is by far the kindest of them, she does not want to be "girls all together" with Miss Martin. And the confusion for Miss Martin increases when they become friends with the judge, "Toddy," already a regular character in their repertoire, whom Miss Martin thought an actual friend.
The first time I read this I admit I was appalled by the Carnes' occasional cruelty. British class distinctions will always be imponderable, and I can tell Ferguson thought the whole thing was screamingly hilarious It's not that one wants to be like Miss Martin, but I was sympathetic to her reactions to their cattiness about a real friend - they mimic the lower-middle-class accent of an actor friend who has kindly arranged a job for Katrine - and Miss Martin tells them coldly it's disloyal. Of course the problem is that this family performs in front of a stranger. She is left out: her place is in her room. And they are all natural actors.
Deirdre is truly kind - but the novel is about many things, and class does enter into it.
The Bloomsbury Group is reprinting this book next summer, so for those who didn't find it last year, there is hope.